Building » Caernarfon – St David and St Helen

Caernarfon – St David and St Helen

Twthill East, Caernarfon, LL55 1PF

A former Church in Wales church shared for worship since 1975 but purchased by the Diocese of Wrexham in 1985 and used exclusively for Catholic worship since then. The church replaced the original church of St Helen built in 1886. Built in 1873 from designs by John Thomas, the County Surveyor, this polychrome Gothic Revival church is well detailed, with a distinctive yellow brick spire and banded brick interior.

In 1800 there were just seven missions and three domestic chapels in the whole of Wales, serving approximately 1,000 Catholics; the nearest of these to Caernarfon was Holywell. A tiny number of Catholics appear to have been living in Caernarfon at this time, and the writer Hyde-Hall noted that they, ‘…are held, for whatever reason I know not, in a sort of execration which supposes them to be scarcely human.’ A William Owen born in Beaumaris in 1786 lived in Caernarfon and was known locally as ‘the Papist’. He established himself as a printer in the town and wrote pamphlets on such subjects as the Reformation and the Martyrs of England and Wales. 

The first Mass known to have been celebrated in the town since the Reformation was said by Fr Edward Carberry in 1827, who had been appointed that year to the mission in Bangor. In 1866 Francis Lansard D’Elbine, a Frenchman, arrived in the town. A professor of languages and teacher of music, he gave private tuition and taught in a local school but was dismissed when it was discovered he was a Catholic priest. At about this time a Welsh convert, Mrs Rosa Wilberforce of Menai Bridge, hearing of the ‘spiritual destitution’ of the Catholics of Caernarfon, approached Fr Lansard with a view to establishing a mission, offering £20 per annum towards its running (O’Toole, p. 22). On the Feast of St Peter and St Paul in 1866 the St Peter and St Paul mission was established in a room in Fr Lansard’s rented house at 7 Crown Street. Upon opening it was attacked by an anti-Catholic mob but was saved thanks to the intervention of Mrs Wilberforce, who reasoned with the crowd in their native language.

Fr Lansard was succeeded in 1869 by Fr John O’Callaghan, who soon after arriving purchased the lease of a house then under construction at the corner Twthill East and Eleanor Street. He moved into the unfinished house in February 1870 and adapted it to serve as a presbytery and chapel. In 1872 Fr Ioan Huw Jones of Bala was appointed to the mission and remained for thirty-six years. A native Welsh speaker, he was an Oxford Tractarian who was received into the Catholic Church by John Henry Newman in 1865 and went on to study theology at St Edmund’s College, Ware and St Beuno’s, North Wales before being appointed to the Caernarfon mission. Among his achievements, he produced a Welsh-Latin prayer book and wrote a Welsh edition of the Penny Catechism. He also oversaw the building of a new chapel in the garden of the house at the corner of Twthill East. Dedicated to St Helen and built at a cost of £445 to house some 200 worshippers, the chapel was solemnly blessed and opened by Bishop Knight of Shrewsbury in November 1888.

This chapel continued in use through much of the twentieth century but by the mid-1960s its poor condition and limited size led to plans for a replacement, on land bequeathed to the parish by a Mrs Farren. Ambitions plans were prepared by local writer, historian and parishioner K. F. Banholzer and by Manchester architects Farebrother Whitney & Partners, but the departure of the parish priest Fr Rudd in 1968 meant that neither scheme was progressed.

In 1975 an agreement was made with the Church in Wales for the occasional use of the nearby church of St David (a Gothic Revival church originally built in 1873 at a cost of about £1800, from designs by John Thomas of Caernarfon, contractor David Williams of Caernarfon). In 1985 St David’s was purchased outright for £17,500, using funds raised from the sale of the house and land bequeathed by Mrs Farren. Re-dedicated as the Catholic church of St David and St Helen, the building was solemnly blessed by Bishop Hannigan of Menevia on 7 December 1986. The church had approximately twice the capacity of the old St Helen’s church. The presbytery continued in use until recent years when the parish began to be served from Bangor, while the old chapel is now used by a nearby school.


A Gothic Revival church in Early English style built in 1873 from designs by John Thomas of Caernarfon. It is constructed of hammer-dressed Newry granite with dressings of granite, Penmaenmawr stone and Stourton Hill stone, and has a two-stage tower and 86 ft spire of yellow brick with Penmaenmawr stone banding. The roof covering is slate, recently renewed. The west front has corner buttresses, three short lancets and a small rose window with plate tracery. The tower has paired lancet windows and paired, louvred belfry openings. The nave is of five bays defined by buttresses, with single lancet windows in each bay. A polygonal apse at the east end has flanking sacristies with external doors all under a lower roofline (the north sacristy has recently been extended).

The interior consists of a wide aisleless nave, apsidal sanctuary and flanking vestries/sacristies, reached by doors on either side of the chancel arch. The walls are faced with cream-coloured brick with decorative red brick banding. The nave has an arch-braced roof with iron ties, while the sanctuary ceiling has a boarded waggon roof. The sanctuary is raised by two steps, and has an organ chamber on the south side. The tabernacle is placed against the east wall, raised by another two steps. The nave has carpet tiles in the circulation areas and boards under the benches, while the sanctuary has oak herringbone parquet and carpet strips.

Furnishings include:

  • A forward altar, of oak with carved columns, arcading, and vine detailing
  • The tabernacle is mid-twentieth century, cylindrical and domed with ΑΩΧΡ detailing
  • A polychrome wooden crucifix hangs from the chancel arch
  • The fine limestone and marble octagonal font with oak cover (photo bottom right at top of report) is carved with foliage and the emblems of the Evangelists; it was given in memory of William Farren (possibly related to Mrs Farren, whose bequest helped purchase the church)
  • There is a slate WWI memorial on the west wall by the font (photo middle right at top of report); below it is a small brass memorial to Lt. William Ignatius George Farren d. 1918, possibly brought from St Helen’s chapel
  • There are two early good stained glass windows in the apse: Suffer Little Children and the Good Shepherd, to Capt. Joseph Griffith d. 1922 and the Good Samaritan, to Lewis Closs Davies d. 1914. The central window is modern, with simple wheat and vine details, the trefoil light older and depicting the dove of the Holy Spirit
  • The benches are pitch pine and appear to be original to the church
  • There are plaster statues of St Vincent de Paul (French) and St Thérèse of Lisieux.
Heritage Details

Architect: John Thomas

Original Date: 1873

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed